Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment Claim Dismissed; “High Bar” Not Met

In Logan v. Millstone Manor LLC et al, 20-14433 (MAS) (TJB), 2022 WL 1720172 (D.N.J. May 27, 2022), the court, inter alia, dismissed plaintiff’s hostile work environment sexual harassment claim. (The court also dismissed plaintiff’s “quid pro quo” sexual harassment claim.)

From the decision:

Viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to Logan, his claim of hostile work environment falls woefully short of meeting the requisite severe or pervasive standard. First, as to Matos’s initial offending comment that she likes “tall, black men,” this statement was made in the context of a conversation between Matos and Wheeler in the kitchen during which Logan was “not really paying attention” because he was “too busy” working. (Logan Dep. Tr. 146:7-24, 147:4-19 (describing that Matos made the comment while “engag[ed] in a conversation with [Wheeler]”).) The only fact Logan presents that even remotely ties the comment to his presence is that Matos “looked up at [him]” while she said it. (Id. at 146:13-14.) Although he recalls feeling uncomfortable after the comment, the Court must look to the “harasser’s conduct, not the plaintiff’s injury,” in assessing severity. Battaglia v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 70 A.3d 602, 622 (N.J. 2013) (quoting Lehmann, 626 A.2d at 456). Ill-advised at worst, Matos’s comment does not rise to the level where a reasonable person would expect it to “amount to a change in the terms and conditions of employment.” El-Sioufi v. St. Peter’s Univ. Hosp., 887 A.2d 1170, 1190 (N.J. Sup. Ct. App. Div. 2005) (citation omitted). Nor, as the first allegation raised, is it the rare case “in which a single statement has sufficed for purposes of creating a triable question about hostile work environment” that has “uniformly involved an outrageous and offensive statement made by a supervisor directly to the complaining subordinate.” Id. Clearly, it is not. Id. (“Such a factual scenario is highly unusual.”)

Second, in wading through the timeline, the Court examines the allegation that a few days later, Matos told Wheeler and Logan during a conversation that she needed to get her “body back ready for the beach,” during which she bent over and touched her ankles in a display of calisthenics. (Logan Dep. Tr. 149:7-11.) Notwithstanding that Logan felt “really … uncomfortable” by this incident (id.), the Court again must turn to the “reasonable” person community standards to ascertain whether the conduct was harassing. Lehmann, 626 A.2d at 458 (“A hypersensitive employee might have an idiosyncratic response to conduct that is not, objectively viewed, harassing.”). In doing so, the Court finds that the conduct is not severe enough that a reasonable employee would believe the working environment turned hostile. See Brown-Baumbach v. B&B Auto., Inc., 437 F. App’x 129, 133 (3d Cir. 2011) (“[N]ot every sexual comment, action or joke creates a hostile work environment.”). Nor as a second incident occurring within a few days is it considered “pervasive.” Cf., Ivan v. County of Middlesex, 595 F. Supp. 2d 425, 453 (D.N.J. 2009) (finding “a significant number of incidents occurring over the course of four years” to be pervasive).

Third, Logan describes that on two separate occasions while he was walking Matos through the inventory and cleanliness of the Millstone kitchen, Matos stood “so close” to him as to make him feel uncomfortable. (Logan Dep. Tr. 150:22-25.) Wheeler was present on at least one occasion. (Id. at 152:14-24, 153:1-6.) Matos did not touch Logan or say anything noteworthy during the alleged personal space invasions. (See Logan Dep. Tr. 150:21-25, 151:12-25, 153:4-24.) She simply stood close to him while they were inspecting the kitchen and freezer. (Id.) Again, this conduct is insufficient, alone or in combination with the first two allegations, to constitute conduct so severe or pervasive as to change Logan’s workplace into an offensive or abusive environment. See Terry v. Ashcroft, 336 F.3d 128, 148 (2d Cir. 2003) (“[T]he standard for establishing a hostile work environment is high.”).

Undoubtedly, what matters is not any one incident in a vacuum but the “cumulative effect” of all alleged incidents as, “[i]n most cases, it is the cumulative impact of successive incidents from which springs a fully formed hostile work environment.” Paige v. Atrion Commc’n Res., Inc., No. 17-00472, 2019 WL 5846799, at *6 (D.N.J. Nov. 7, 2019) (quoting Godfrey v. Princeton Theological Seminary, 952 A.2d 1034, 1045 (N.J. 2008)). Still, in reviewing all allegations, facts, and circumstances holistically, the Court finds that “no reasonable jury could conclude that the alleged conduct was ‘severe or pervasive’ ” as to “render [Logan’s] work environment hostile.” Clayton v. City of Atlantic City, 538 F. App’x 124, 128-29 (3d Cir. 2013). Cf., Paige, 2019 WL 5846799, at *8 (denying summary judgment where plaintiff alleged at least fourteen separate incidents in which her supervisor sexually harassed her). The three minor incidents over a two months’ span do not constitute a hostile work environment. Cf. Bacone v. Phila. Hous. Auth., 112 F. App’x 127, 129 (3d Cir. 2004) (“The behavior at issue involved no more than four incidents during the span of two weeks, and though they were offensive, they are not pervasive enough to rise to the level of a Title VII violation.”).

Based on this, the court concluded that the facts of this case (even when considered in the light most favorable to plaintiff), did not meet the “high bar” set in hostile work environment cases.

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